I’ve written before about the relation between terror and narrative. But now my former student James passes me a link to Mark Danner’s essay “Taking Stock of the Forever War”, an account of the “global war on terror” since 9/11, which includes this observation:

A war that had a clear purpose and a certain end has now lost its reason and its finish. Americans find themselves fighting and dying in a kind of existential desert of the present. For Americans, the war has lost its narrative.

I don’t know whether or not Danner’s reference to a “desert of the present” is meant to be an allusion to Zizek’s “desert of the real”. I doubt it. On the other hand, it might as well be: the temporality of the real is, after all, alien to the chronology of narrative history.

At the same time, it is not as though the real–the real opened up in and by terror, the real of the war against terror, the real of the interplay of affect and habit–it is not as though this real were devoid of temporality or historicity. Any suggestion otherwise is psychoanalysis’s classic error, the imposition of eternal, unalterable forms onto the psychic life of power.

We need to invent new ways of thinking history adequate to what at first appears to be an eternal present. Deserts lack the recognizable features that otherwise orient us in space and time; but their shifting sands hardly lack differentiation. Indeed they are endlessly, intensively, immanently differentiated, rather than merely distinguished according to fixed relations of extension and transcendent identity.


Here’s another snippet that will probably be dropped from the chapter. It deals with an issue I’ve discussed earlier, as k-punk has observed: the relation between terror and narrative.

There’s hardly a better example of this (non)relation than Alan Clarke’s film Elephant (1989), simultaneously the most and the least eloquent of statements about terror. The film is almost devoid of dialogue, and consists of a series of assassinations carried out by various un-named, unidentified characters in a depopulated, everyday suburban landscape of shops, factories, parks, gas stations and so on. The camera follows silent and seemingly ordinary figures who make their way determinedly through the city until they come across another equally anonymous figure, and then remorselessly, unfailingly, shoot.

still from Elephant
One assassination follows another, relentlessly, horrifically, without explanation or apparent meaning. More emphatically even than Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Short Film about Killing (1988), Elephant makes no attempt to justify or explain its serial murders. But the film’s silence is unbearable. We inevitably attempt to construct some kind of story, some kind of frame within which to situate the slaughter, and so to relieve (displace) the shock that it causes us. As Richard Kirkland puts it, “the discrete autonomy of Elephant‘s violence is fundamentally compromised by the viewer’s endless and troubled search for narrative” (8).

So once it is “understood” (most likely thanks to its paratexts) that the film is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles, the viewer starts to elaborate a narrative that will give the meaning and logic to the killings that the film resolutely denies us: for instance, we might read them in terms of a “cycle of violence,” “tit for tat killings” performed alternately by Loyalists and Republicans. An elephant never forgets. But in that the film has forced us, its audience, to come up with these clichés, it has also foregrounded the extent to which all discourse about terrorism is imposed upon events and bodies that otherwise stop interpretation short.

Even, in the end, the judgment that such killings are “senseless” (as they are so often described in hackneyed journalistic reports) is itself part of a narrative that aims to give sense to what otherwise subverts the distinction between sense and senselessness.

(At this point let me add a heartfelt recommendation of Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, an extraordinary novel that also makes the point that terror is most fundamentally narrative’s interruption.)

Gus Van Sant’s movie Elephant was inspired by Clarke’s film. Unlike its predecessor, Van Sant’s movie does feature dialogue. But what’s interesting here is the way in which language becomes no more than sound, for instance in the scene with the girl in the swimming pool. Van Sant perhaps points to another possible source of Clarke’s title, Bernard MacLaverty’s description of the Troubles as like having an elephant in your living room: so incomprehensible that directly addressing the issue is impossible. All the talk around violence inevitably misses its point(lessness).

One could say much more along these lines about the killing of Jean de Menezes. I don’t buy either the state’s self-justification or the left’s critique of the state. The left seeks explanation by invoking cover-ups, racism, or conspiracy theories. The police and government declare that the shooting in Stockwell was a “tragic mistake.” But the distinction between truth and error, innocent and guilty, intention and accident, is now strictly undecidable in our contemporary control society.

por algo

During the so-called “dirty war” conducted by the Argentine military regime of the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase “por algo será” crystallized something like residual acquiescence to the state’s legitimacy.

The Argentine death squads operated often with only the minimum of clandestinity: people were frequently disappeared in broad daylight, in the center of Buenos Aires. Little was hidden; the repression was out in the open. But people looked away. There’s an amazing photograph in Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts, for instance, of the moment of an abduction right in front of a downtown café’s plate glass window. You can see a woman inside the café turning her head. Taylor terms this (self-)cauterizing of vision “percepticide.”

abduction in front of a cafe
Percepticide was justified by the notion that “there must be a reason.” The abductee must have done something wrong to have been taken away by the state. “Por algo será.” As Carlos Mangone notes, “por algo será” was “a phrase that marked civil indifference (and objective complicity) in the face of repression”; it indicated “a social psychology that calmed individual consciences and displaced the specter of thousands of human beings who had once had their own social, political, and cultural trajectories.” The extinction of these thousands of individual histories was explained by the singularity of an unimpeached state logic.

We can uncover a similar logic at work as details are revealed of the circumstances that led to the London police killing Jean de Menezes at Stockwell tube a couple of weeks ago. (See the ITV news report and coverage at Lenin’s Tomb.)

We were originally told by eyewitnesses that de Menezes was of Asian appearance, wearing a bulky jacket, wires protruding, and that he jumped the station barriers, running down to the train. Now it turns out that all these details were wrong. He was Brazilian (and relatively light-skinned, for what that’s worth), in a light denim jacket, no wires, who went through the barriers in the normal way, stopping to pick up a newspaper, ran to catch the train, and sat down in his seat.

The original accounts, then, are symptomatic of a social fantasy secured by the state. They are elaborated from the original acquiescence that assumes that “por algo será,” “there must be a reason,” and proceeds to conjure one (or here, several) out of the confusing series of sensations produced in the event itself.

But the police too are victims of this same social fantasy. Hence the detail of the de Menezes’s alleged “Mongolian eyes” that lenin mentions at Lenin’s Tomb. In other words, rather than conspiracy or cover-up (though it is clear that, in denying that there were CCTV images of the incident, the police have subsequently if rather half-heartedly attempted some kind of cover-up), we see how police and public alike are subject to the state’s capacity to organize our perceptions, to secure our complicity with its violence at some level far beneath consciousness.

[edited, having found the photograph in question on the web, and so also to correct the fact I had (mis)remembered the person in the cafe being male]


I’ve been thinking a little more about habit, and what I said earlier, without wanting to go back and edit that entry.

I said that

in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that’s part of its trauma and most of its objective.

Now, that too is ambivalent. Without becoming an apologist for terror, if it makes us rethink a thing or two, then that’s no bad thing.

Prevailing political discourse is rather contradictory on this point. On the one hand, it would have us, if possible, ignore terror and go on our merry way without changing our habits in the slightest. The fact that tube trains were (almost) full a few days after the attacks on the London Underground was touted as a victory for British stoicism, common sense, the “spirit of the Blitz” and so on. Meanwhile, the fact that the bombings on the Madrid train system may well have influenced the subsequent election has been portrayed as “giving in to terror,” as allowing the terrorists to win.

On the other hand, we are to be eternally vigilant, to “learn the lessons” that terror has taught. The same people who denounce Spaniards for “giving in” are likely also to describe the attacks on New York and Washington as a “wake-up call” to rouse us out of our earlier somnolence, finally to do something about, whatever, the threat of Muslim fundamentalism or (in the case of the London incidents) the precariousness of multiculturalism.

I think it might be more helpful to think of terror as a “shock to thought” (to borrow a phrase from Brian Massumi) that occupies two temporalities. First, in the event itself, time stands still. Habit is suspended. Thought (by which I now mean the whole biological nervous and synaptic apparatus) is paralyzed. A pause, a ghastly instant of indecision, of an impossibility to decide (run, hide, fight, flight). Confusion. Even sensation may be in abeyance (“I didn’t even realize I’d been hurt.”) This is the time of the bomb itself, and it is almost outside of politics.

Second, after the event, a new, narrative temporality emerges. This is the time of explanation and recrimination, the elaboration of justifications, apologies, denunciations, or retaliations. Here the non-political event of terror itself is politicized, narrativized, given sense and coherence. Old narratives and habits may be resumed, recycled, reclaimed, but this is also an opportunity for the articulation of new, post-crisis analysis or political projects. Which would also help engender new habits, new ways of being.

And if terror has been put to use by the right (as it undoubtedly has been, to provide justification for imperial adventures in the Middle East and so on), why can it not be put to use by the left?